Politics & Government

House Dem leaders keep picking favorites in open primaries

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Democratic leaders in the House are throwing money to their favored candidates in open primaries despite objections from a liberal base that wants the party’s establishment class, after 2016’s embarrassing defeat, to leave these choices to voters in 2018.

Top House leaders and their political action committees have already cut big checks to candidates in a dozen primaries without a Democratic incumbent, part of a coordinated effort to boost certain challengers over their rivals. The favored candidates — including two who won the Democratic nomination in the district just last year — face primary opponents in nearly every case.

The contributions are not a new practice from Democratic congressional leaders, but at a time of increased activism inside the party, they risk a backlash that could hurt the party leaders and the candidates they support.

“It’s more of the same,” said Corbin Trent, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group formed earlier this year that vows to defeat Democratic candidates it deems beholden to big business. It’s the kind of liberal group that hopes to match the success that conservative grassroots groups had defeating the Republican establishment during the tea party wave of 2010, when activists propelled a handful candidates to victory over the objections of GOP leaders.

“They’re incapable of learning what I consider the best lessons of 2016,” Trent said of Democratic party leaders..

House Democratic officials say they are only choosing candidates who have clearly established themselves as the clear-cut choice, both in a primary and general election, in races where many of the other Democrats have barely assembled campaigns or raised money. And Democratic leaders, for now, have still decided to stay out of some of the party’s most competitive primaries.

“We are building the largest battlefield in a decade, and there are already a number of candidates setting themselves apart in that effort, thanks to their records of service and impressive work engaging the grassroots in these districts,” said Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We look forward to continuing to work with Democratic candidates in the fight to beat establishment Republicans in Washington.”

Kelly also said the DCCC itself can and might get involved in open primaries as the races develop.

The contributions so far have come from three House Democratic lawmakers: DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Hoyer and Pelosi also contributed money through their PACs). The trio combined to give $129,000 to these candidates during the last fundraising quarter alone.

Some of the favored candidates have received as much as $15,000 in contributions. In Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, for instance, former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick received that much from the leadership trio.

Kirkpatrick — who raised eyebrows this year when she declared as a candidate despite representing the state’s 1st Congressional District just last year — benefitted from the cash influx; she faces a competitive primary against Matthew Heinz, a former state lawmaker who was the Democrats’ 2016 nominee in the district. Heinz had $186,000 on hand to begin October, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The Arizona race is probably the most competitive primary that has drawn involvement of Democratic leaders, but it’s not the only one. In Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, Jason Crow received $8,000 in donations from Hoyer and Lujan even though he faces four rivals for the nomination. One of them, Levi Tilleman, had $111,000 in the bank to begin the month.

Another race, in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Hoyer and Lujan again combined to give Democratic candidate Dan McCready $8,000 even as he faces Christian Cano, the party’s nominee in 2016.

Even without the help from Democratic leadership, Kirkpatrick, Crow, and McCready would be clear front-runners. Kirkpatrick was a former congresswoman and the party’s nominee for Senate in Arizona last year, while Crow ($393,000 on hand) and McCready ($700,000 on hand) have enormous fundraising advantages over their intra-party foes.

But news of the party’s involvement in any open primary, particularly this early in the election cycle, has drawn a rebuke from some liberal activists. Many of them think the Democratic establishment needs to rethink how it does business after last year’s devastating loss to Donald Trump in the presidential election, including letting the party’s rank-and-file determine its fleet of candidates.

Now, GOP leaders, such as National Republican Congressional Campaign Chairman Steve Stivers and House Speaker Paul Ryan, do not contribute to candidates in open Republican House primaries, according to spokesmen for both.

Trent said the contributions from Democratic leaders would backfire.

“This sort of move by the Democratic leadership will just further entrench these kinds of primary opponents,” he said. “It’s going to continue to grow the opposition to their leadership.”

Whether Democratic leaders should fear a backlash is uncertain: The party has not been shy about competing in primaries recently, most notably last year when Senate Democrats spent heavily in a Pennsylvania Senate primary to help Katie McGinty defeat former Congressman Joe Sestak, and party leadership has still faced only minor turbulence as a result.

When it comes to congressional elections, Democrats have long failed to get voters to show up.

In most of the dozen races, many of the other candidates are also not able to take advantage of a backlash even if one arrived. Brendan Kelly in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District, who received $8,000, faces five opponents in a primary, but none of them have raised even $10,000, according to the FEC. Kelly has raised $356,000. Elissa Slotkin, a candidate in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District who received $7,000 from leadership, faces two opponents who combined have raised zero dollars.

Others, such as Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District, don’t face any opponents yet; others such as Brad Ashford in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District face only one foe.

Democratic leaders have also stayed out of some of the party’s most competitive primaries, such as in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District or New York’s 19th Congressional District, where no clear front-runner has emerged.

Some of the Democrats running against these preferred candidates also said they didn’t mind seeing the support flow to their rival. Cano, running against McCready in North Carolina, said he doesn’t hold anything against the DCCC, with which he is still in regular communication.

“Is it troubling as a candidate to see that?” Cano said of the donations to McCready. “Uh, I guess if you were a candidate that got your feelings hurt, yes it would be.”

He paused.

“But you can’t run for office if you get your feelings hurt.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty